Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought

By David Patterson | Go to book overview

11

THE HOLY

In the first chapter of this volume I stated that Hebrew is the holy tongue not because it is the language of Torah; rather, Hebrew is the language of Torah because it is the holy tongue. Having arrived at the end of our explorations, we may realize what the holy tongue conveys that can find no other vessel: it is holiness itself. But what is holiness?

The category of the holy, as understood in Jewish thought, is alien to Western speculative philosophy. When the speculative thinkers address the topic of the holy, it generally has something to do with some ultimate form of being, supreme in morality or might or beneficence or reason. They often see G-d as distinct from the holy and do not understand Him to be the Holy One. In the Euthyphro, for example, Plato argues that god loves the holy because it is holy and rejects the idea that it is holy because god loves it. And Kant maintains that god is deduced from morality, not morality from god. While it is true that Jewish philosophy has its rationalists such as Saadia Gaon, Bachya ibn Paquda, and Gersonides, it must not be forgotten that no matter how deeply they were influenced by Greek philosophy, these scholars all adhered to Torah-based thinking about creation, revelation, and redemption, and therefore about holiness.

Viewing the holy as a who, and not a what, Torah-based thinking is as foreign to Western ontological philosophy as it is essential to Jewish thought. The fundamental view of speculative thought is that nothing can come from nothing. The fundamental position of Jewish thought, by contrast, is not exactly that something comes from nothing, but rather that

(ani), or “I, ” emerges from (ein), or nothing, as noted in the last chapter. Where does it emerge? It emerges in the beginning with the manifestation of the Who, as stated in the Zohar (Zohar I, 2a). It emerges at Mount Sinai, in the utterance of (Anokhi), the “I” first uttered at Sinai. More about this will be discussed below. For now let it be noted that what is revealed at Mount Sinai is the I: as the Zlotzover Maggid, Rabbi Yechiel Mikhal once taught, “The word I only G-d can utter” (quoted in Newman 1963:423). If, however, this is what is revealed about G-d, what is revealed about the human being? Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz offers a helpful insight:

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Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Opening Remarks on the Holy Tongue 6
  • 2 - First Things 16
  • 3 - Giving Voice to G-D 32
  • 4 - The Good 51
  • 5 - For the Sake of Another 70
  • 6 - The Soul 89
  • 7 - Exile 110
  • 8 - Dwelling 133
  • 9 - The House of the Book 153
  • 10 - The Word 173
  • 11 - The Holy 195
  • 12 - Closing Remarks 216
  • Appendix 220
  • Notes 223
  • Bibliography 230
  • Index 237
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